Sunday, 20 August 2017

Johannes Bobrowski


                                      Johannes Bobrowski - 'My dark has already come '
                                                  Image courtesy of Wikipedia-German troops crossing Society border 1941

                Johannes Bobrowski ( 1917- 1965)  served in the German army from 1940- 1945, and was a Soviet Prisoner of War from 1945- 1949, and then settled in the Russian zone which eventually became the DDR.   A large amount of his  work that  is available in English seems strangely impersonal, centred around a bleak but strikingly beautiful natural world.

                                     Place of Fire

                                      We saw that sky, Blackness
                                      moved on the water, the fires
                                      beat, darkness with trembling
                                      lights stepped forward in front
                                      of the wood on the bank, in animal hide,
                                      We heard
                                      the mouths in the foilage.

                                      That sky stood
                                      unmoved. And was made
                                      of storms and tore us forward,
                                      screaming we saw the earth
                                      ascending with fields and rivers,
                                      forest, the flying fires
The poet is a hopeless and helpless presence in a  tumultuous landscape.

References to his own experiences as a soldier and/prisoner of war intrude occasionally.

                       " I began to write near Lake Ilmen in 1941, about the Russian landscape, but as a foreigner, a German. This became a theme, something like this; the Germans and the European East-because I grew up around the river Memel, where Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Germans, lived together, and among them all the Jews. ..."

                         Introduction to ' Shadowlands. (anthology from 1966)  page 16

The Memel region was German territory before the Treaty of Versailles, where it was placed under international control,only to be taken by Lithuania, then annexed to Germany in 1939.  Through his poetry, Bobrowski was to evoke the region of Europe as 'Sarmatia,' which he counted as being East Prussia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, though sometimes stretched into western Russia.  In a long poem from 1952 'Pruzzische Elegie', Bobrowski added a note stating that this work "calls to memory the people of Pruzze ( Old Prussia) exterminated by the Teutonic Order", the Germanic knights who began military campaigns against north European pagans as from the  13th century.

                                         One poem  where humans activity is a central theme is 'Kaunas 1941' commemorating the killing of Jews by pro-German Lithuanian nationalists, who murdered their victims with  iron bars and shovels whilst their supporters cheered them on. The style even then seems understated compared with  the horror of the event.

                                       Kaunas 1941

                                                                         " Noisily
                                      the murderers pass the gate.we walk
                                      softly, in musty air, in the tracks of wolves.
                                       At evening we looked out
                                      over a stony valley. The hawk
                                      swept round the broad dome
                                      We saw the old town, house after house
                                      running down to the river.

                                     Will you walk over
                                     the hill? The grey processions
                                     -old men and sometimes boys-
                                    die there. They walk up the slope ahead of the slavering wolves."

                             If Bobrowski is a serving soldier and observer, he reports the scene with a distinct detachment,at one point asking the question "Did my eyes avoid yours brother" The poem ends with the cryptic line 'My dark has already come' .  Perhaps Bobrowski's work has been neglected in Britain as so many people wish to read war poetry as some  sort of historical eye witness account. Bobrowski comes over as an invader and intruder in his mythical 'Sarmatia' . He wrote from the view of an enemy soldier, and later as a Christian viewing the crushing of a heathen culture.

 Johannes Bobrowski's  work was read in both the DDR and in West Germany. Bobrowski avoided politics, and did not clash with the DDR authorities like his contemporary Peter Huchel. Bobrowski also avoided social comment and political polemic, unlike his fellow DDR citizen, Brecht.

Perhaps a favourite Bobrowski poem of mine is Lake Ilmen 1941, with its hints that the landscape of 'Sarmatia' will triumph over the Teutonic invaders.

                                                  Lake Ilmen 1941

                                              " -Days of the lake. Of light
                                                A track in the grass
                                                the white tower stands
                                                like a gravestone.
                                                deserted by the dead
                                                The broken roof
                                                in the caw of crows
                                               Nights of the lake.The forest
                                               falls into the marshes
                                               The Old Wolf
                                               far from the burnt out site
                                               startled by a phantom,
                                               Years of the lake.The armoured
                                               flood. The climbing darkness
                                               of the waters. One day
                                               it will strike
                                               the storming  birds from the sky."



Further reading On Line

Cutbank Journal  Montana University review of Bobrowski 's poetry , 1980

Writers No One Reads blog feature on Bobrowski

Literator South African literature blog  Fascinating article about Bobrowski's poetry, Jewish Suffering, and how this issue was treated by the DDR.


'Shadowlands' -excellent anthology of Bobrowski's work introduced by poet Michael Hamburger, poems translated by Ruth and Mathew Mead , first appeared in 1966, but has been reprinted several times.

A volume of Bobrowski's poetry in English appeared in the Penguin Modern Poets series of 1971.

'Between Sarmatia and Socialism -The Life and Works of Johannes Bobrowski' by John Wiezerock
1999, ( A lot of the poetry quoted is not translated from the original German).

 Michael Hamburger  East German Poetry (1970)

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